The transforming power of biblical Christianity

In my previous post, I made reference to a piece on MyNews24, in which the writer expressed his opinion that biblical Christianity “causes many of the negative aspects of our society, and I would far rather have reason, critical thinking and scientific knowledge affect our ideas and choices instead of superstition, fear, and the unproven supernatural.” This opinion got me thinking about the historic impact of Christianity, and consequently I did a little bit of reading.

One helpful resource is John Blanchard’s monumental work, Does God Believe in Atheists?1 In chapter 18 (“The book that speaks for itself”), Blanchard deals with the reliability of the Bible. He argues, basically, in accordance with C. Sanders’ three tests for assessing the reliability of ancient documents.2, that the Bible passes with flying colours the bibliographical test, the external evidence test, and the internal evidence test.

Blanchard provides an interesting look into the available texts of the Old and New Testaments and a brief introduction into textual criticism. He cites the conclusions of many scholars and leaders regarding the reliability of the biblical text, and concludes with the words of the late Charles Colson: “Nothing has affected the rise and fall of civilization, the character of cultures, the structure of government, and the lives of inhabitants of this planet as profoundly as the words of the Bible.”3

Blanchard goes on to cite specific evidence to substantiate this claim.4 These examples include William Wilberforce, who was driven by his Christianity to campaign for the abolition of slavery; the Seventh Earl of Shaftsbury, who was driven by biblical convictions to revolutionise working-class conditions that had been created by the Industrial Revolution; and Thomas Barnardo, who, all because of Christian convictions, established a home for destitute children, which, by the time he died 35 years later, had admitted nearly 60,000 children, had helped 20,000 to emigrate, and had offered material help of one kind or another to another 250,000.

Or take this account:

After the famous mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, the nine mutineers were put ashore on Pitcairn Island, along with six native men, ten native women and a fifteen-year old girl. Soon afterwards, someone succeeded in distilling a crude form of alcohol, a “success” which led to widespread abuse, the deaths of nearly all the mutineers, and several savage murders. Somewhere among the belongings of those who had died, a Bible and Book of Common Prayer were found. Reading the Bible led James Adams and Ned Young to a radical change of life and to a determination to build among the natives a society in which the Bible would be the island’s rule of life. The change was so dramatic that several years later visitors found what virtually amounted to a model society, with crime unknown and life and property completely safe.

Another interesting historical survey can be found in Boice and Ryken’s The Doctrines of Grace. In a chapter titled “What Calvinism Does in History,”5 the authors trace the influence of biblical Christianity from Calvin’s Geneva, through the time of the Puritans and the Great Awakening to Abraham Kuyper’s Holland.

As Boice and Ryken note, “if Calvinism is biblical, then we should expect to discover that the church has flourished whenever the doctrines of grace have been taught and practiced. By contrast, we should expect to discover that wherever and whenever these doctrines have come under assault, the church has suffered spiritual, moral, and social decline. . . . One way to test the mettle of a theology is to examine the record of its practical effect.”6

In the years prior to the Reformation, Geneva was a place that was infamous for immorality. Boice and Ryken describe as “common vices” such social ills as “drunkenness, disorderly conduct, gambling, prostitution, and adultery. On occasion, Genevans had been known to run naked through the streets singing vulgar and even blasphemous songs. Unfair business practices, such as usury, were common The city was also troubled by dissension in the form of what one observer described as ‘ungodly and dangerous factions.’”7

In an effort to curb social disorder, the Genevan Council decided to hire a better minister. John Calvin was the man hired, but when he began his ministry he found the city even more chaotic than expected. When his preaching proved unpopular and little fruit seemed to be forthcoming, he was relieved of his pastoral duties. Within a few years, however, the citizens of Geneva clamoured for his reinstatement.

When Calvin returned to Geneva, he commenced a rigorous schedule of preaching. He simply preached the Bible—book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. Exposure to this preaching slowly transformed the people of Geneva. Taverns were closed in an effort to reduce drunkenness. To reduce instances of adultery, public bathhouses were divided so that men and women could bathe separately. Geneva became cleaner and safer. Calvin himself designed a civic sewer system and insisted that parents install railings around their balconies so as to protect their children. He established a benevolence fund to aid refugee Protestants during the Reformation and established the famous Geneva Academy to serve as a centre for academic excellence. He also advocated  education for girls. J. Marcellus Kik summarises:

Cleanliness was practically unknown in towns of his generation and epidemics were common and numerous. He moved the Council to make permanent regulations for establishing sanitary conditions and supervision of markets. Beggars were prohibited from the streets, but a hospital and poorhouse were provided and well conducted. Calvin labored zealously for the education of all classes and established the famous Academy, whose influence reached all parts of Europe and even to the British Isles. He urged the council to introduce the cloth and silk industry and thus laid the foundation for the temporal wealth of Geneva. This industry . . . proved especially successful in Geneva because Calvin, through the gospel created within the individual the love of work, honesty, thrift and cooperation. He taught that capital was not an evil thing, but the blessed result of honest labor and that it could be used for the welfare of mankind.8

We could speak further of the positive influence of the Puritans, who held education in high regard, and advocated thorough training in mathematics, astronomy, physics, botany, chemistry, philosophy, poetry, history and medicine. Or we could take of America’s First Great Awakening, which transformed society9 and led to the founding of several prominent New England colleges, now venerable institutions of the Ivy League.

  1. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe authored a book in 1997 titled What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?10 in which they compiled a compendium of information regarding the influence of Christianity in the world.

The authors deal with such subjects as Christianity’s impact on the value of human life; Christianity’s contribution to helping the poor; Christianity’s contribution to education; Christianity’s impact on the founding of America; Christianity’s contribution to civil liberties; Christianity’s impact on science; Christianity’s impact on economics; Christianity’s impact on sex and the family; Christianity’s impact on health and medicine; Christianity’s impact on morality; and Christianity’s impact on arts and music.

The book shows that Christianity has made a great many positive contributions to human society throughout the ages, including the founding of hospitals and universities, the abolition of slavery, contributions to modern science, the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, high regard for human life, and development of art and music. The book is well-researched and well-documented and provides compelling insight into the influence of Christianity.

There is little doubt that much evil has been carried out in the name of Christianity, but where true, biblical Christianity is practised, the social results are invariably positive. This contention will do little in the way of swaying the sceptical mind, but it is one that is demonstrably true throughout history.

  1. John Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists? (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2000), 389-421.
  2. C. Sanders, An Introduction to Research in English Literary History, (New York: MacMillan Co., 1952), 143ff.
  3. Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists?, 412.
  4. Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists?, 413–15.
  5. James Motgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 39–66.
  6. Ryken and Boice, The Doctrines of Grace, 39.
  7. Boice and Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, 40.
  8. J. Marcellus Kik, Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms (New York: Thomas Nelson,1963), 83.
  9. See Jonathan Edwards, “On the Great Religious Revival,” in The Annals of America; Volume 1, 1493-1754: Discovering a New World (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1976), 458-63.
  10. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born? (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1997)

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